About the Author: Carter Harkins

Carter Harkins

Carter Harkins is the Chief Storyteller at Harkins Creative. When asked how one can know whether the story being told about a brand is the right story, his response was, "You know it's the right one if it's authentic, transparent and profitable." He spends his days obsessing over the small stuff in every clients' story.

Recent Posts from Carter Harkins:

3 Essential Members of Your Desert Island Content Dream Team

Unless you are Superman or Wonder Woman (and we know she reads our blog.. hey there!), you’re going to require a helping hand now and then in generating the mountains of digital content expected of any thriving business with an online presence today.  You don’t have to hire content strategists like us, but it’s important to begin building a Content Dream Team that can crank out various multimedia, social and SEO/SEM content.

So, we asked ourselves, if we were stranded on a desert island, which three players would be indispensable in helping us generate our marketing content? (This is assuming that we would care about such things, being recently stranded on a desert island, and all…)  These are our answers:

  1. The Multimedia Pro. This is the person who can easily and effortlessly crank out video after video from their cool iPhone4, and upload them to YouTube seconds after catching a poignant story moment in the office or out in the field.  Make no mistake, the person who is a natural for this role is the person who is already engaged with the technologies to make this sort of thing happen, and that means that this person is particularly hard to source.  If you’re lucky enough to have one on staff doing something else, then make it part of their job description to follow around people and get this content captured and published to share with your hungry public!
  2. The Social Butterfly. I bet you never thought that the person who spends 2 hours a day on Facebook and Twitter while at work could ever prove to be an undiscovered asset to your company, huh? Well, maybe, maybe not. They’ve certainly proved how enticing and potent the medium can be.  And they certainly have an understanding of the workings of the various online social spaces.  But if they have an interest in helping you develop an authentic voice in those spaces, you may have just just hit pay dirt.  Ask them to give you a written proposal on how Facebook or Twitter could become a part of what they do for you on a daily basis.
  3. The SEO/SEM Robot. Writing articles, blog posts, submitting a site to multiple directories, and increasing the number of inbound links coming to your site from good sources is the bane of most small business owners. Who has the time?  Well, if you can add someone who has a penchant for technical details and obscure strategies, it’ll take most of this tedious-yet-essential stuff off your plate.  The best person for this job is someone who finds the Zen in keyword research and loves to get lost in formulating vast charts and spreadsheets of links and potential links to go after.

So there you have it. It’s not going to be easy to find natural fits for each of these roles, but we cannot see how you’ll be able to keep the content coming in any meaningful quantities without them.

When SEO Doesn’t Make Sense

I recently had a conversation with a doctor about search engine optimization.  He was excited to talk about the idea that he wanted his name, and to a slightly lesser extent the name of his practice, to pop up all over the front page of Google.  He was disappointed when he googled himself, not to see his name popping up at the top.  He wanted to know how much it would cost to get that kind of result.  I told him it wouldn’t be expensive at all.  He got excited.

I then told him that it would be money down the drain, with no real return on investment to speak of.  He looked puzzled, so I went on to demonstrate my point by pulling up a keyword tool on my iphone, and showing him the volume of people searching for his name. Zilch.  Or so few that the keyword tool wouldn’t embarrass him further by showing him just how few there really were, after you subtracted his own vanity searches.  His doctor-ego had just taken a hit, so I decided I’d better channel his energy in a positive direction.

Next, I asked him if he had any idea how many people searched for the name of the primary disease with which his particular specialty dealt.  We did the numbers (the name of the disease plus the name of the city in which he practiced), and he was astounded to see how many monthly searches there were.  Then I asked him if he would like for his name to appear all over the front page of Google for THAT phrase. To his credit, the light bulb sparked to life without much delay.  He asked me how much this strategy would cost, and I just smiled at him.

Rule # 1 of Search Optimization: There is a direct correlation between the number of searches a term gets, and the amount of money, effort, and time it will require to move the needle.

Rule # 2 of Search Optimization: There is a direct correlation between the number of searches a term gets and the potential returns to be had in going after the front page of the SERPs.

The work of SEO must always consider these rules when forming and deploying a meaningful strategy.

So what kinds of scenarios don’t make sense for a comprehensive SEO strategy?  I asked our SEO team to answer that, and this was their list:

  1. The market-busting product. If it’s so new and revolutionary that no one in the market even knows that they need it yet, then SEO is not going to help at all.  The real expense of marketing this kind of category-defiant product or service is in directly educating existing customers and potential customers about what your product is and does, and why it’s needed.  If no one knows what term or phrase to enter into a search engine to find you, they won’t be searching that way for you yet. (One exception is the revolutionary product that fits well into an existing, clearly defined market need, such as a new vacuum cleaner technology, or an amazing new spatula.
  2. The invisible Brand Name. Branding is a necessary function of marketing, but not necessarily the first priority of SEO. It’s not the low-hanging fruit.  Again, this comes back to knowing what keywords people use to find your product or service.  Getting the sale is the first priority, and if your brand name alone does not yet have the cache to move the market, stick to optimizing the keywords that describe your product or service until your other concentrated branding efforts catch up.
  3. The tangential product, or Red-Headed Stepchild. Many companies have a core competency they are known for, but there’s still this great little product or service on the side that seems to get far less attention.  SEO the heck out of it, right?  Well, maybe, maybe not.  If there is not a clear connection between the core offering and the sidebar deal, there may not be a smart way of leveraging the strength of the one to infuse the other with deserved attention.  Remember, Google doesn’t care that your company is branching out. It only cares about returning relevant search results to its visitors (and arguably making Gazillions in the process).  If your New Thing isn’t the same thing as your Tried and True Thing, the amount of effort necessary to get noticeable results begins to look a lot like an entirely separate SEO strategy, complete with its own budget and structure.  Diluting the strength of your tested and profitable web pages with large doses of The New Thing is not going to help anyone get rich(er).
  4. The low-profit per sale deals. We’ve had to talk some clients out of SEO, simply because the price point (and more importantly, the profit margin) on their typical sales didn’t justify the expense.  Quite simply, if the research shows that you can expect to pay the same price or more than you’ll net on a sale to acquire that sale through organic or paid search optimization activities, then either raise your prices, or find a different, more cost-effective method of marketing your goods or services.  We love to see clients who fundamentally understand the expected net value over time of a new customer relationship, because these are the clients we can truly have rational discussions about ROI expectations.  Don’t spend too much to acquire too little.
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The Importance of Market Intelligence

It is said that creativity often flourishes under constraint. When certain defined limitations are imposed on the creative process, it can free the brain to focus on finding the best creative expression within those boundaries, and the results are often compelling and engaging. And as creative marketers, engagement that leads to action is the name of the game.

I shudder to think how many professionally-produced brochures and web sites I have seen over the years that have missed the critical marks of action and engagement. Not as defined by me, but as defined by measurable market response! It is almost as if the creative team tasked with showcasing a business simply ignored everything except their own creative self expression, and delivered something beautiful yet absolutely worthless to the business they purported to serve.

And on the other hand, I have seen Microsoft Word template-based designs (note the utter disdain in my tone) that offended every sense of style known to the western world, and yet when evaluated based on the results, they were compelling, effective and engaging. For creatives everywhere, this is troubling.

This observation should set us on a lifelong path of learning about what makes one thing engaging, while something else is wholly ignored. I have found that the distinguishing characteristic time and time again is this: Market Intelligence.

The best, most engaging creative content is not created in a vacuum. It doesn’t begin in meetings that start with creative briefs and specs. It doesn’t even find much footing in the sophistication or brilliant swagger of the creative shop doing the work. It starts with a tangible, working knowledge of who the market really is, what they really want, and how they want it.  Market intel.

Market intelligence is the constraint that any creative marketing firm seeks to define before one single bit of creative work gets done. It’s the size and shape of the canvas. It’s the color palette and the style. It informs and defines and shapes and limits in essential ways, all of which help to deliver the final results that justify the price tag: action and engagement.

How intelligent are you about your market? How much do you know about how they interact with your brand, your products, your services? How much sharper could that understanding be, and how would having better market intel shape your next marketing effort and budget allotment?

Digital Marketing is Still Marketing

I’m about two beats away from ridding our Digital Marketing company of the “digital” prefix altogether. There seems to be this expectation that the marketing we do is somehow fundamentally different in its approach than any other marketing activity, simply because it’s digital. But it’s not. In fact, digital strategies that are not solidly rooted in Marketing 101 basics fail the test every time.  Our roots are solidly planted in the deep soil of all the best marketing knowledge to come before us.  Remove the word “digital”, and we are still a marketing company.

Digital marketing is a useful term, but only insofar as it describes the medium in which we work. We still need to understand market segments, demographics, psychographics, and the common human experience in general. We need to know what the triggers are for people in a specific market, and we need to find compelling stories to tell about why one product or service is better than another in the same market. Our clients know we will take these fundamental understandings and employ solid strategies in the digital space. It’s not magic just because it’s cutting edge. We still have to do our homework the same as any worthy marketer.

We reach people in different ways today, but the essential work of finding them and reaching them still looks much like it did in a previous era.  My bookshelves are filled with marketing psychology books and marketing management courses, all of which do not mention the internet or email, or web sites, or Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.  They were written before those strategies existed. Does that mean that the concepts within them are outdated? With few exceptions, they still hold true today.

The exceptions are notable, of course. The savvy consumer of today doesn’t tolerate the old “buyers are sheep” paradigm any more. They are exercising full control over their choice in the marketplace, and that’s a great thing. Does it change the buying triggers? Not really. Good marketing doesn’t always have to create the desire, so much as tap into the desires that already exist in the marketplace. The work of marketing is primarily concerned with ferreting out those emotional and logical justifications, and aligning the product or service in a way that gives the consumer the ability to purchase from you.

I do not always see those in the “Digital Marketing” camp talking about basic marketing principles. perhaps it’s all a foregone conclusion that any discussion of digital tools and tactics takes into account the rudiments of marketing best practices, but from what I read, that’s not always the case. Too often, the justification for the use of a digital tool or platform comes more from a sense of what is possible (i.e. provided features) and not from a solid understanding of the more human triggers of desire, belonging, need, opportunity, knowledge or advancement. That’s a shame. The digital space is a fun playground for marketers. But we squander our clients’ resources when we do not start at square one in building an understanding of their products, services, customers, prospects and marketplaces before we go out to play.

Giving More: Exceed Your Market’s Content Expectations

It seems counter-intuitive to give away your your knowledge in order to get more market share. In fact, some would say it’s downright irresponsible.  How can you protect the expertise that ensures your livelihood when you willingly give it away for free?

The truth is that the more you give away, the more the market understands that YOU are the expert they’ve been looking for.  Solve people’s knowledge problem, and they’re more apt to give you the opportunity to solve the real underlying problem – and pay you a premium to do so.

One of the goals of a content strategy is to prove expertise and share valuable knowledge with those in your market (potential and current customers). To some extent, consumers on a knowledge quest have a low expectation of the quality of the content out there that might address their immediate need. Finding the good stuff can take a while, too.

Think about it: how much time would you expect to spend trying to find out the difference between sea salt and kosher salt? Like most, you would start that query at the Google search box. A quick look at the results for the phrase “difference between sea salt and kosher salt” tells me that not many fine salt purveyors have tried very hard to answer this most basic of food questions.  Way at the bottom of page one, I found a salt brand (Morton’s) and a salt seller (Salt Works). The first results were forums, recipe sites, and a TV network site.

The return on an investment spent answering this question better than the others would pay off handsomely, I would think. The principle at work here is that by giving more and better content than your market expects, you can become a resource in their minds. And the distance between the act of coming to you for knowledge about salt types and the act of coming to you to buy salt is not a big one. Any marketer worth his salt could easily bridge that gap. Sorry. I had to do it.

BarCamp Nashville Sessions – That filled up FAST!

BarCamp Nashville Sessions All Filled Up

Wow. The race went to the swift in this year’s BarCamp Nashville Sessions sign up. I am really excited to see how many people have something worthwhile to say, but DANG! I wish I could have been a little quicker on the draw, in order to be counted among them. Oh well, we’ll be involved, for sure, and from the looks of it, it’s going to be a good year.

What is the Goal of Digital Marketing?

Recently I was with a group of business owners who were talking about different “marketing tools” they were using for their businesses.  There seemed to be a rabid desire among them to learn about some “Holy Grail” new tactic or technique they could use. But as I started asking them how they would use one particular tool or another, their answers started sounding more like the feature lists these tools use to market themselves.

  • “It lets me add all my contacts and manage discussions in one place.”
  • “I can see results from my email campaign in real time!”
  • “I can post to Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, all from the same program.”

Not to belabor the point, but these stated reasons for using a tool aren’t reasons at all. They don’t identify the one crucial element every marketing activity must possess: The Goal.

So what is the goal of any marketing effort, digital or otherwise? It’s simple: To increase revenue and profit.

Any tool, tactic or strategy must be able to demonstrate how it will help you hit this goal, or it’s nothing but a waste of time, money and resources.

Lately, it seems like many respected tools and tactics cannot seem to quantify any bottom line objective.  I guess that’s what makes us different from other creative digital agencies. We genuinely think that if a service can’t justify it’s price, then neither can we.

Are you asking the tough question about your marketing efforts? Or are you wasting precious resources without a strategy that moves you closer to your revenue or profit goal? Either way, you should know and be able to quantify how each new tool or tactic moves you closer or farther away from revenue and profit. To riff on an old axiom, “Experiment, but verify.”